For more than 700 years, the unique structure and appearance of the Chester Rows have entranced residents and visitors to the city alike. Radiating outward from the Cross, at the very heart of Chester, the multi-level Rows are lined with buildings boasting signature black and white facades, and have become among the walled city’s most beloved attractions.
In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into the history of this distinctive urban location while giving city visitors a glimpse of what to expect from the Chester Rows of today.
Where are the Chester Rows located?
A collection of covered galleries, the Chester Rows can be discovered on the first-floor level of most of Watergate Street, Bridge Street and Eastgate Street, along with some of Northgate Street. There are also some remnants of the Rows on Lower Bridge Street.
The mysterious history of the Chester Rows
The Chester Rows are entirely unique to the city, but their exact origins remain clouded. While many theories exist, no definitive answers have been uncovered to date.
Among the many hypotheses is the notion that the rows were built on the foundation of remaining rubble dating to Roman times. Chester as we know it today was constructed on the Roman fortress known as Deva and, as a result, much of the of the stronghold remained within the city walls a thousand years later.
Another theory is that townsfolk during the medieval era wanted to enhance the retail potential of the buildings they owned. Working within the restrictions established by the Roman walls encircling the city, the traders built storefronts upwards to maximise available space and potential profit.
Yet a further notion is that the Rows’ design was built with security in mind against Welsh raiders penetrating the city, with the tiered levels offering a defensive advantage in the form of the high ground.
Regardless of the intentions behind their construction, historical research indicates that the Rows were probably developed towards the end of the 13th century. It has been suggested that following the devastating fire of 1278, when Chester was a key medieval port, the Rows may have been erected as part of rebuilding work on the city.
At one point, the Chester Rows boasted the names of different trades offered by vendors. For instance, Butchers Row could be found at Watergate Street, Mercers Row and Shoemakers Row were based on Bridge Street, Cornmarket Row was located at Eastgate Street and Northgate Street was home to Ironmongers Row.
The Chester Rows today
At the level of the Chester Rows there is now very little in the way of building materials dating as far back as the medieval era, but below, approximately 20 undercrofts can still be found for fans of ancient architecture and history. Many buildings that include portions of the Chester Rows enjoy listed status and there some that the English Heritage Archive has recorded.
At street level, the many outlets and other premises are unlike any shopping areas found in other urban areas of the UK, although there are many cafes, pubs and stores entered after descending two or three steps. Up one level on the first floor of the Rows, there are further premises set slightly back from the street to leave room for the continuous walkway. Above this level, the next storey overlaps the walkway, making it a covered or sheltered walkway, and constituting what is now well-known as the “Row”.
Over on the street side of the covered walkways are safety railings, along with an area that was originally used as stalls or shelves for the displaying and selling of goods. The multiple floors located above the level of the Chester Rows are used for a mix of storage, commercial and residential purposes.
A diverse array of businesses can be found operating from the Rows, from pubs and restaurants to independent shops. While some parts of the Rows are packed with pedestrian traffic, other areas can be surprisingly peaceful and present a pleasant place to peer down at the hustle and bustle of Chester’s busy city streets during the day.
Offering an eclectic mix of experiences designed for all appetites, options on the Rows include celebrated restaurants like Shrub and the Olive Tree Brasserie, Turkish kitchens such as Pars Kahve and wine bars like Paysan.
As of 1995, access to the Chester Rows has seen marked improved via a pedestrianisation scheme that impacts all the streets that contain the Rows. As a result, most vehicles are now prohibited from using the location during its most active parts of the day.
Due to their rare engaging appearance and unusual origins, the Chester Rows are now a major tourist attraction for the city and the covered shopping they offer makes them an ideal location to visit whatever the weather.